British Champions Day 2014 Preview
This Saturday sees the fourth renewal of British Champions Day, Ascot's end of season celebration of British (and European) racing. Although the weather forecast has dampened prospects somewhat, allied to the untimely and premature retirement of some of the sport's main equine athletes, there remains much to look forward to.
Racegoers and punters will be treated to three Group 1's, two Group 2's, and the inaugural running of the Balmoral Handicap which, with a purse of £250,000, is the richest mile handicap in Europe. And there will be something else to assist the on-course betting public this year, too. More on that in a moment.
The action gets underway at 1.45 with the Long Distance Cup, a Group 2 run over two miles. The Queen's Estimate headlines the entries, her last time out win in the Doncaster Cup bringing her to Ascot - scene of her finest hour when taking the 2013 Gold Cup - in fine form.
But she may have to yield to a strong Irish contingent, bidding to retain a prize they've held since the race - formerly the Jockey Club Cup run at Newmarket - was transferred to Her Majesty's racecourse in 2011. The raiding party is headed by reigning Gold Cup champ, Leading Light, a thorough stayer perhaps caught out by the shorter trip and tactical disaster on Irish Champions Weekend.
Heavy ground should be fine as Leading Light, a son of Montjeu, broke his maiden on bottomless terrain at Tipperary. Two from two at Ascot, he'll make a bold bid for the hat-trick, and 5/2 is reasonable if unexciting.
The fly in the ointment is the hugely scopey unbeaten Dermot Weld-trained Forgotten Rules. Winner of a bumper at the Punchestown Festival (by thirteen lengths no less), and the Guinness Race at the Galway Festival (only eight lengths clear this time), Forgotten Rules epitomises the phrase, "could be anything". The runner up there, Shu Lewis, has run some fair races on unsuitably quick ground, giving the form a firmer look than Ascot's weekend lawn.
Still further potential depth is added to the race with Irish Cesarewitch winner, El Salvador, and progressive pair Big Orange and Pallasator still all engaged.
The bookies want to 'get' Leading Light, but I see few chinks in his armour, and reckon 5/2 is perfectly fair. Whilst I won't be piling in, I can't find one I like enough against him either.
Next up is the British Champions Sprint, a six furlong Group 2. Slade Power, last year's winner and the most classy deep ground six furlong horse on the planet, has gone in search of oriental prizes rather than plundering occidental pots closer to home. In his absence, G Force has been supplemented at a cost of £20,000, but the Haydock Sprint Cup winner has to prove he acts on a slow surface. Second on his debut on soft, he's not raced on anything more stamina-sapping than good in seven runs since.
Still, with so few miles on the clock and a Group 1 already on his metaphorical mantelpiece, he could take some pegging back. Another three year old, the unbeaten Lightning Moon, has only raced on the soft side of good, though never as deep as this, and already has a course and distance Group 3 to his name from just three starts. That was a solid performance against older horses, but there are a couple of better class animals in here. So, despite his obvious scope to step forward again, I'm looking further afield.
The one I like is Eddie Lynam's four year old filly, Viztoria. She has had a very quiet campaign, but was an impressive winner of a Listed race over the same trip last time, and was third in this race last year. She's two from two on heavy ground - both at the distance - and 8/1 looks fair enough, especially as she's drawn alongside key pace angle, An Saighdiur.
I must also mention my old mate, Jack Dexter, who will relish the boggy conditions. Seven of his eight wins have come on soft or heavy, and after a season largely in the doldrums, Jack showed more of his old dash last time when a running on eighth in the Ayr Gold Cup under top weight, and on unsuitably firm ground. 10/1 is far from a gift, but I expect him to make a bold bid, as he did when a neck second in the race last year.
The Fillies and Mares Stakes is race three, and the first of the trio of Group 1's. One of the two supplementary entries, Silk Sari, looks of interest. She has been progressive throughout the season and arrives here on the hat-trick after wins in Listed and Group 2 company. She showed on the latter of those runs that she stays very well, and she has form on soft and is bred for it too (by Dalakhani out of a Rainbow Quest mare).
Those proven on heavy ground include Cubanita and Euphrasia, with the former being worth a second look in an open race. Ralph Beckett's five year old won a going and distance Group 3 this time last year, and she's a grinder plain and simple. With a prominent running style in her favour, she ought to go close.
In the same ownership is Madame Chiang, another filly who should love the ground. She's not been seen since a well beaten tenth in the Oaks, but prior to that had won both her starts and both on soft ground. The latter was the Musidora Stakes at York, the form of which has worked out pretty well making 16/1 a speculative price about a filly who has a bit to prove after a layoff, but one which might be worth taking.
If the opening trio of races look largely up to scratch, then the fourth - and first of the features - may be a tad sup-par. The QEII Stakes this year has a highest rated of 122, and that chap - Charm Spirit - is little known on these shores.
But, in what could turn out to be a Gallic double for the two flagship races, Freddie Head's colt is the narrow form choice. Beaten into fifth in the 2000 Guineas, he reversed form with Night Of Thunder when taking the Group 1 Prix Morny in September. There was only a head and a neck back to Night Of Thunder, and there should again be little between the pair.
Integral is a very smart filly, winning two mile Group 1's against her own sex this season. Soft ground is fine for her, though heavy would be an unknown, but her win record of six out of seven at a mile is impressive, and she's a spot of value to my eye. Ryan Moore is a huge fan of Integral, and far be it from me to argue with his knowledge of the the form book. He's a jockey who could make a good living from betting if he wasn't a jockey (and the best in the world at that), such is his comprehension of past performance.
Two at bigger prices that are known mud-lovers are the on-a-roll Custom Cut, and the proven here Top Notch Tonto. The former has won his last five and has bags of form on heavy. Whether he's up to a Group 1 is open to question, but that he should have a crack at one is beyond doubt. I'd expect him to be outclassed ultimately, but not disgraced, in fourth or fifth place.
TNT ran a dynamite race (geddit?!) in this contest last year, finishing a respectful second to facile winner Olympic Glory. He's been a touch in the wilderness this season, but showed more in his most recent pair of starts. I can't see him winning, for similar reasons to Custom Cut, but he's another who will likely run his race regardless of the ground, having won his only heavy ground start over a mile at two.
The lightly raced Kingsbarns, winner of the Racing Post Trophy two years ago, looks a smidge over-priced at 33/1 in a place, if at his best. Clearly he's hard to train - just seven starts in three years - but he has class and he relishes deep ground. On his A game, he wouldn't have much to find with the pick of these, and he's still open to improvement after such a sparse racing career to date.
And Tullius has been saved for this, and gets his conditions. He's improved with age, but does have a bit to find with the pick of his rivals. Still, I expect him to run well in what looks a great betting race.
The Champion Stakes has no Frankel this year - it didn't last year either - and it has no Australia, with the dual Derby winner having been more likely to contest the shorter QEII Stakes prior to being retired with a foot injury. The Grey Gatsby also swerves the race, which is a pity, as they are the pre-eminent middle distance pair of their generation.
The pity is compounded by the presence of Free Eagle, a colt of enormous potential who has been forced to miss most of the big dances this season through injury. After a monstrous return to the track on Irish Champions Weekend, he'd have been a big danger to both Oz and TGG had they rocked up.
Instead, 'Freagle' will have to content himself with taking on the mighty old warrior, Cirrus Des Aigles. His rivals couldn't beat him last time in the Prix Dollar, but the stewards did, taking him down for interference late in the day. No matter, he comes here in cracking form, and he handles soft ground better than almost all top class performers. Cirrus was being written off last year before running a close second, whereas now he's as short as 11/8, and no bigger than 13/8, to claim a second win in the race after his first in 2011.
I am one of CdA's legion of fans, and I hope he wins the Champion Stakes again, because he is unquestionably a champion. In an era when top class horses rarely race beyond their second season, Cirrus Des Aigles' enduring legacy is exactly that: he is sparring his way through a seventh racing season. Now, of course, that's because his ability to breed was cruelly denied by too hasty a removal of his undercarriage. But the shed's loss is our gain, and this veteran of 59 races - 21 of which are wins, and eighteen of those Pattern race wins (six Group 1's) - is a true colossus of the flat.
But he's not a bet at the price. Nor is Freagle. Dermot Weld's impressive last day winner ran a race that whispered 'bounce' after a year off the track. The bounce, in case you didn't know, is the word attributed the phenomenon of a horse performing brilliantly after a long layoff - often having a seemingly easy race in the process - only to fail to run to that level in its subsequent start.
It's entirely possible that Freagle is over his Enterprise Stakes win, but at 3/1 I'll swerve.
Noble Mission could be good enough to take this, after back-to-back soft ground Group 1 wins overseas in May and June, and a second place in a third continental Group 1 in July. He would be continuing the Frankel theme, being a full brother to the brilliant one, and in that regard would be a perfect story horse, especially as he's trained by the late Sir Henry's widow, Lady Cecil; and I understand he's been training very well.
But I'm still looking for my Champion Stakes wager, and one that is of mild appeal (note, only mild appeal) at a price is Johnny G's Western Hymn. Ten furlongs and give in the ground look ideal for a horse that ran quite well despite the terra firmer in the Derby, finishing sixth. Since then he's won a Group 2 in France, and was a slightly disappointing favourite when fourth in a similar race there.
Although he's had a long enough break since that last start in mid-August, Gosden's colt goes well fresh, and I think at 18/1 he might be a soupçon of value each way in a heat where the layers look to have things about right.
CHAMPIONS DAY SPECIAL OFFERS
After that, all that's left is the super-valuable Balmoral Handicap, a mile race with a big field, and that running of the bulls is best considered in the context of going and draw. The pace looks to be middle to high, and it could be Brian Ellison who holds the aces with a pair of mudlarks.
Baraweez is the more obvious of the duo, the ex-Freddy Head-trained Cape Cross gelding coming here on a hat-trick after two valuable seven furlong wins in Ireland. He stays a mile easily, with wins at both that range and a furlong further; is drawn right in the middle with pace around him, and he has a prominent enough run style himself. That may be crucial as quickening out of the mud from the rear past so many hardy handicappers could prove an insurmountable task. He's 14/1 generally.
Less obvious, but still worthy of consideration, is Ellison's second string, Dream Walker. This fellow has box 17, two away from his stablemate. He also has a low weight, and a win and a second on heavy. Those were over shorter trips, and in Class 6 races, a huge step - literally - from today's distance, and metaphorically from today's grade. Still, Dream Walker's progression in the last two years has been impressive. Rated just 56 last July, a rapid-fire triple pushed him up to 77, and a further win two starts later nudged him still further to 84.
Winless in ten since, he's been second or three four times in that sequence, and was only three lengths behind Baraweez in that Leopardstown handicap. It's no surprise to see Dream Walker being backed, and 20/1 with Coral, five places, is a bet.
My last 'guess' is Buckstay. Drawn fairly high in 20, and versatile as regards running style, if he was gunned near the front rank he'd have definite place claims. Although Peter Chapple-Hyam's nag is yet to race on heavy, his soft ground form offers hope: third of sixteen in a good Newmarket handicap on his only try at a soft mile. He's frequently been campaigned at longer distances, in spite of not being bred for it and not staying every time. Fourth in the Cambridgeshire last time - losing a couple of places in the last of nine furlongs there - the 'turn back play' is in effect. 20/1 and drifting doesn't worry me: I think he can again hit the board.
Now then, Saturday is my birthday - 43, in case you were wondering - and I shall be at Ascot for British Champions Day. And, in a welcome embrace of something which doesn't come from the more traditional stables of either Racing Post or Timeform, so will Geegeez Gold.
This year's Champions Day programme will feature, alongside each of the six races, the Instant Expert grid for that race. You know, the traffic light thingie that finds loads of big priced winners. Here's last year's concluding handicap - which horse would you have chosen?
If you said Breton Rock, the 12/1 winner, well done, your eyes still work and you're probably not colour blind. [Click the image if it's a bit small, and it will open in a new window]
The presence of Instant Expert in the Champions Day programme is great for a number of reasons. Obviously, from a personal perspective it's very gratifying to be playing a tiny part in such a big day. But it represents a lot more than that. I believe this is a recognition that there is a better way to help newcomers to the sport, or those who are short on time, to get a handle on the form.
Clearly this is not the alpha and omega of form reading - Geegeez Gold has other tools for that, like pace analysis, form filters, trainer/jockey reports, hot form races, subsequent form analysis and so on - but it is (in my completely biased opinion) the most accessible route to making an informed betting decision for people who know little or nothing about horse racing form.
And it's pretty bloody good for those who know loads about horse racing form, too!
So yes, I'm thrilled about this, though of course the curse of the big moment means that Instant Expert will now fail to flag a winner on Saturday!
I need to thank all Gold subscribers for their feedback and support, which has made all of the features and tools what they are, and will continue to shape the future of Geegeez Gold.
For those of you who are not Gold subscribers, why not?! 😉
Actually, on a more serious note, I wanted to do more to showcase Gold features to non-subscribers, so we now have two things that all registered users (i.e. free subscribers) can access:
1. Race of the Day offers full access to Instant Expert, Pace Analysis, trainer and jockey form indicators and more for the second most valuable race each day. Today it's the 3.50 Huntingdon. You'll know which race it is if you're a free logged in user, as it will be highlighted by a big yellow bar.
2. Feature of the Day varies from day to day and gives free logged in users access to one facet of the Gold fraternity each day. On Mondays it is Stat of the Day (yesterday's free SotD tip was an easy 9/2 winner). Tuesdays (i.e. today) it's The Shortlist report. Wednesday is Trainer Stats report day; Thursday opens up the Instant Expert tab for ALL races; Friday showcases the Horses For Courses report; Saturday has the Trainer/Jockey Combo report; and Sunday brings the Pace Analysis tab to all.
Phew! That's pretty cool, right?
If you're a free user, you MUST check out these freebies. They're sure to help your betting. And if you want to upgrade to an unrestricted trial of Gold for ten days (it's only £24 a month, or £197 a year, thereafter, which is ridiculously good value compared to other services), you can do so here:
If you're not yet a free user, and you bet on horses, you are seriously missing out. Seriously. Missing. Out. You can register for a free account here:
That's all for today. Good luck!